ANNAPOLIS, Md. — The seemingly inexplicable roots of an unparalleled football mind become a bit less unfathomable on the third floor of Ricketts Hall at the Naval Academy.
There, in a lounge by the reception area for Navy’s football program that is filled with mementos of a storied history, shelves of books protected by locked glass doors line two walls on either side of large flat-screen TVs. At first, the proximity of the hundreds of volumes to couches and recliners make them seem little more than decorative, akin to the affectation of a coffee shop.
Upon closer examination, those same doors transform into a window to the extraordinary football upbringing of the head coach of the New England Patriots.
For first-time visitors, the natural assumption when seeing the small “Belichick Collection” plaque — which mentions only “the Belichick family” and not any individual member — might be to think of the connection between Bill Belichick, arguably the most successful coach in football history, and the game’s origins. Yet it takes little time when thumbing through more than a century’s worth of football history to understand that, while the Patriots coach is indeed a contributor to this remarkable inventory, his father, Steve Belichick, served as its principal collection agent.
“We associated [the collection] with coach Bill Belichick at that time,” said Patriots long snapper Joe Cardona, a Naval Academy alumnus. “But you’d be quickly reminded by the guys who played football at the Academy who the real Coach Belichick was in their life.”
“Everyone loved him and talked about him,” said Navy senior associate athletic director Scott Strasemeier, who is in his 26th year in Annapolis. “Just hearing former players talk about him, over time, you learned what kind of treasure he was.
“I would call him a grizzled veteran. He was funny, he’d curse like a sailor — never in a bad way, but that was his vocabulary. He was old school. If you were going to do a 1950s movie about football, he’d be the guy you would cast as the coach.”
For generations of Navy players, and for Bill Belichick himself, Steve Belichick represents an iconic figure. Steve Belichick, who served in the Navy during World War II, came to the Naval Academy in 1956 and became a near-daily fixture in Ricketts Hall for almost a half-century. As a coach from 1956 through 1989, and even in retirement until his death in 2005 (he is buried in the Naval Academy cemetery), he earned a reputation — cemented by his comprehensive 1962 work, “Football Scouting Methods” — as one of the great scouts in football history.
Bill Belichick eventually started collecting books of his own that are now part of the Belichick collection at the Naval Academy, believed to be one of the most extensive collections of its kind outside of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The opportunity to thumb through seminal works of football history that date to the late 19th century, however, quickly demonstrates that it is Steve’s influence that is primary. His nameplate is found on the inside cover of a majority of the books. Most of the inscriptions found on the title page — such as those from Hall of Fame coach Bud Wilkinson inside his 1952 book, “Oklahoma Split T Football,” and an autobiography by Navy graduate and Hall of Famer Roger Staubach — are addressed to him.
Navy football historian John Clary inscribed one of his books to Steve Belichick, “who epitomizes the best of Navy Football!”
In a signed copy of his 1958 book on the Baltimore Colts, author John Steadman proved more expansive: “To Steve — A man who has made a valuable contribution to football and, more importantly, humanity. Had the wonderful opportunity to meet your son. What a credit he is to you. I am sure he will go on to make a place for himself in his chosen endeavor.”
One noteworthy inscription to Bill Belichick is found inside “What a Football Coach Does,” a glimpse into the modus operandi of Hall of Fame coach George Allen: “To Bill: Work hard, don’t be discouraged. Best wishes, George Allen.”
In that lounge, Steve Belichick’s mark remains palpable, his legacy clear.
Passing knowledge down
Bryce McDonald, now Navy’s director of football operations, graduated from the academy in 2003, at a time when Steve Belichick remained a daily visitor to Ricketts Hall. He takes time to appreciate the collection and notes that another artifact in the room — a brass clock from the Class of 1963 — was given to Steve Belichick. Its chime serves as a reminder of the Navy legend.
“His spirit is here,” McDonald said.
So, too, is the sense of a bond built with his son around football and the culture of the Naval Academy, and of an upbringing that positioned Bill Belichick to see the game like perhaps none other.
Among the hundreds of books are foundational authors and tomes, among them an 1891 edition of Walter Camp’s “American Football,” an 1893 copy of Amos Alonzo Stagg’s “Scientific and Practical Treatise on American Football for Schools and Colleges,” Robert Zuppke’s 1924 “Football Techniques and Tactics,” and “Coaching,” a 1925 monograph from Knute Rockne. A perusal of first editions represents a portal back in time.
“We spend a lot of time in that building, especially as freshmen, you’d sit in the Belichick Library and read,” Cardona said. “You’re overwhelmed by the volumes and volumes of this collection. You have stuff dating back to 1890. Any book you can see, from blocking technique, history of the game, anything that had anything to do with football, it’s in that library.”
The knowledge in the books, including Steve Belichick’s own book, was funneled from father to son from the time that Bill Belichick started meandering around Navy’s football program in the 1950s and going forward to when he occasionally accompanied his father on road trips.
That upbringing separated Bill Belichick, affording him not only the ability to diagnose formations and plays but also to understand the motivations and thought processes that serve as their basis. In becoming versed in the language, culture, and traditions of football at a young age, Bill Belichick had an opportunity matched by few others — and the mind and temperament to take advantage of it.
In Steve Belichick’s book on scouting, it’s easy to see the lessons that started early. In the first chapter, for instance, a foundation is laid: “Every effort should be made to stop what the opponent does best. . . . It is logical to think that a coach’s philosophy should be: ‘Be strong against a team’s strength. Be alert for anything that they have shown. If they do beat you, make them do it with something that they haven’t shown before.’ ”
It comes as little surprise that such a lesson — along with an insistence on adapting to the times, the commitment to reference years of scouting reports in preparation for upcoming opponents, the exploration of telling signs (foot position, backfield formations, tempo) by which an opponent might give away a play type or direction — took root.
“All of us knew his dad,” said Maxie Baughan, the defensive coordinator of the 1975 Baltimore Colts team that gave Bill Belichick his first coaching job. “Billy worshipped his dad. The biggest part of learning in his career was with his dad.”
That education started early, as Navy players eventually came to realize of the meticulous scouting reports that they received from Steve Belichick on the Mondays preceding game days.
“It turned out that it was him and his son Bill who had scouted the week before,” recalled Tom Lynch, who played at Navy from 1960 to ’64. “Young Bill was about 10 years old. We saw him at practice. He was running around the locker room. He’d shag balls, things like that.
“I didn’t know at the time that he was going on some scouting trips with his dad. We came to find out later that he broke down film at home. Billy, when he was in high school, he broke down film with the Navy coaches. He was steeped in football at a very young age.”
He was likewise steeped in the culture of the Naval Academy, which seemingly offered its own lessons in the values and structures of successful organizations. In many respects, the Patriots’ “Do your job” mantra seems like an extension of the setting where Bill Belichick received his football education.
“I think the whole environment there at the Naval Academy has a lot to do, had a lot to do, with the present-day personality of Bill Belichick — one of rules and regulations, one of respect for authority,” said 1960 Heisman winner Joe Bellino, Belichick’s favorite player as a child.
“I think he just grew up with the feeling that there are rules, there are regulations, that if you follow, you become successful. I think he’s carried that on through his coaching years of football.”
Access to the past
The decision by Bill Belichick to donate the collection back to the Naval Academy served in some ways as an acknowledgement of the distinctiveness of the opportunity that he received — and the special bond he had with his father, a connection that revolved around a shared passion for the sport and the intricacies of its history.
That being the case, in some ways the greatest illustration of that relationship within the collection is found in an unexpected place. Tucked inside “Michigan State Multiple Offense,” a 1953 book by Clarence “Biggie” Munn published the year after he coached the Spartans to a national championship, sat an all-access credential to Foxboro Stadium for a Patriots-Dolphins game on Dec. 24, 2000.
That day, the Patriots endured a 27-24 loss to Miami that punctuated Bill Belichick’s 5-11 first season as New England’s head coach. Evidently, that game on the afternoon of Christmas Eve was observed by Steve Belichick, who commingled thoughts of his son’s 2000 Patriots with a Spartans team that preceded it by nearly half a century.
That distinctive relationship of a father and son across time and football history endures in the collection where the book and credential are now housed.
“That was passed down from Steve to his son Bill, and now Bill has passed that down to the Naval Academy Football Program. That’s unique,” Lynch said. “It’s very meaningful. It gets to you, no matter what your age is.”